The amount of water this season that can be found across the northern Great Plains states of Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota is epic. Flows from the Missouri River set records and flooding was widespread. High-water situations that are so common through this region right now are a stark contrast to drought conditions that gripped regions of these states as little as ten years ago. Some fisheries have dealt with the effects of rising water for quite some time, notably the glacial lakes region of northeastern South Dakota along with the Devils Lake basin in northeastern North Dakota. Several other fisheries across the region now seem to be benefiting from water and some areas, like the Nebraska Sand Hill Lakes, might peak soon.
FIFTEEN MINUTES OF FAME
Many of these fisheries are flush with water and fish, but small bodies of water tend to be very cyclic. What is universal with these regions, however, is that there will typically be several small lakes scattered through an area created by land formations and some lakes become Internet sensations one winter only to grow into yesterday’s news the following season, so anglers are encouraged to be flexible. We know some regions are good; we know some fisheries have a tremendous amount of potential, but which flooded duck slough produces enormous fish this season won’t truly be known until boots walk on ice.
Remember as well that by the time one of these little lakes gets famous on Internet chat forums and local bait shop fishing reports, the lake is usually on the downward trend. Obviously, local anglers who do their homework have a huge advantage in tapping into these peaking lakes at just the right time and they typically remain tight-lipped about great fishing. That is not to say, however, that the visiting or traveling angler can’t find and be successful fishing these regions. What I have found is that some of the best information comes from the local people themselves. I have been turned on to incredible lakes by just buying groceries at a local convenience store, for example, in small towns located within these lake-riddled regions.
Ask the locals and remember that you often won’t really know which exact lake you will be fishing until after you spend some time in the area. Some of these high-water opportunities don’t even have official names and many aren’t on the maps yet. Because many of these small, productive lakes can’t handle a tremendous amount of fishing pressure, many tourism agencies, bait shops and other resources don’t point out or list smaller bodies of water but instead point out a region — or list the larger, more established fisheries that are capable of handling more fishing pressure.
Perhaps the most well-known ice-fishing destination on the Great Plains would be North Dakota’s Devils Lake. Like many fisheries across the North Country, Devils Lake was brutal last winter, with heavy snow and slush conditions that broke down equipment and made travel or mobility almost impossible. Even anglers with snowmobiles were hampered by slush. Barring the excessive snow of the past two seasons in particular, Devils Lake has a tremendous amount of potential and sits as one of the top walleye fisheries in the Midwest. While walleyes are fat and plentiful in Devils Lake, this lake also has a booming pike population, with some big pike measuring out well past 40 inches. Devils Lake is also still one of the best lakes in the country for catching a 2-pound perch, but ice-fishing for these jumbo panfish has been sporadic over the past decade.
For both pike and walleyes in particular, new water seems to be the key. Even during the winter, nice fish are caught out of the new bays and flooded shorelines and great bites often happen in less than 10 feet of water. What also surprises many anglers is how well walleyes will sometimes continue to bite through out the course of a day when the sun is high. Anglers targeting pike and walleyes often aggressively jig both spoons and swim lures. For attracting the attention of these toothy predators, many anglers make the mistake of not jigging enough. “These shallow fish are extremely aggressive and want that lure pounding or rocking in a 1-foot to 6-inch window and if you let it sit still when a fish approaches, they often ignore it,” explains Steve “Zippy” Dahl from Devils Lake’s famous Perch Patrol Guide Service. Dahl stresses that jigging lures account for most of the walleyes in shallow water with favorite lures including Salmo Chubby Darters, Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoons, Rapala Jigging Shads and Northland Puppet Minnows. Anglers often tip the bottom treble with just a minnow head and pound the lure hard, watching for fish to come in with a Vexilar. When fish do show up, they often really thump the bait. Many anglers also use tip ups as North Dakota allows four lines per person on the ice and tip-ups, combined with quick strike rigs and frozen herring or smelt, are deadly on northern pike.
Dahl stresses that jumbo perch often occupy different locations on the ice and anglers often target the deeper basin areas that are massive soft bottom flats that can be in water as deep as fifty feet. Catching Devils Lake’s famous jumbo perch from deep water sometimes takes some adjustments to be successful. These perch are often very fickle, typically keying on small baits that are presented in a very subtle manner. Many anglers tie a dropper below a spoon. A dropper is just a short, half-foot piece of monofilament line where one end is tied to a small hook or teardrop style jig and the other end is tied to a heavier spoon that drops through the water fast. Spoons that fall fast and drop straight are the key for fishing deep water and the guides on Devils Lake seem to prefer the Northland Tackle Buckshot Spoons.
While the deep basins of the Main Bay, East Bay and East Devils Lake often hold numbers of perch and also big fish, some sleeper areas for perch (particularly larger fish) have been both Pelican Lake and Lake Irvine. Both of these areas are much shallower and typically don’t boast numbers of fish, but the fish are often big and are sometimes mixed in with nice walleyes.
The numerous glacial lakes of northeastern South Dakota are another popular ice-fishing destination that holds much potential. While dated surveys indicate that this region boasts over 120 different lakes, high water might very well push the number of lakes to well over 200. Many of these lakes are less than 2,000 acres but some of these glacial lakes are much larger, with Waubay Lake near Webster covering nearly 20,000 acres of water.
This region offers a variety of ice-fishing opportunities, with perch, walleye, pike, bluegills, crappies and even smallmouth bass available, depending on the lake. Some lakes produced enormous perch last winter that topped well over 2 pounds. In fact, jumbo perch have made this region famous amongst ice-anglers.
Both Waubay Lake and Bitter Lake are large, consistent lakes in the region that have several nice year-classes coming of age with 12-inch-plus fish common. Besides Waubay and Bitter Lake, the region has countless smaller pockets of water that can be productive and many lakes are one-year wonders where a small lake will get discovered and fished out during a season and the hot lake the following year is a few miles down the road. Many of these glacial lakes are traditional “dish pan” lakes that have a tapering shoreline that flattens out to an expansive basin.
Perch typically roam the basins and prime locations to key on are the transitions between the soft mud basins and the sand or gravel of the shoreline. Anglers targeting perch typically have to drill holes and be mobile in order to find these roaming fish. Small spoons tipped with either wax worms or minnow heads are very popular as the extra flash can bring in fish from a long distance. Anglers often prefer gold or perch-patterned Northland Buckshot Spoons or Macho Minnows. Most of the fish roam near the bottom, so pounding the bottom with the spoon and slowly lifting the spoon off the bottom is a very productive tactic. Electronics, like a Vexilar, can be an enormous advantage, revealing when fish come through. On many of these lakes, the water clarity during the winter can be extremely good, with peak activity often occurring right at sunrise and sunset.
While perch are common in almost all of the lakes in the region, a handful of lakes do have strong crappie populations, with Pickerel Lake and Reetz Lake being two of the more noteworthy fisheries. Anglers typically target crappies over the deeper basins and often find fish in anywhere from 18 to 30 feet of water with fish commonly suspending 2 to 8 feet off the bottom. Small, compact jigs like the Hexi-Fly tipped with wax worms, soft plastic tails or spikes work extremely well.
Walleyes are very common throughout the region and there are some top-notch walleye lakes in this portion of northeastern South Dakota. Waubay Lake, Thompson Lake, Bitter Lake, Antelope Lake and Swan Lake are some of the more noteworthy lakes in the region that are consistent in producing walleye each winter for ice-anglers. Walleyes can sometimes be found roaming with perch, but anglers often find walleyes relating to the flooded shoreline areas where there is rock and gravel. Flooded timber is also another very effective location and there are even opportunities for fishing flooded roadbeds. As mentioned earlier regarding the clear water and perch fishing, activity for walleyes often spikes at dawn and dusk. Anglers work spoons and swim lures by actively jigging. Productive lure choices include Macho Minnows, Jigging Rapalas, Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoons, Salmo Chubby Darters and Northland Puppet Minnows.
Nebraska might be on the edge of the ice belt but there is no lack of great ice-fishing opportunities. Good water conditions have also blessed the Cornhusker State and one of the more noteworthy areas is the Sand Hill Lakes. While many of these shallow prairie lakes are on private ground, there are numerous lakes located on both the Preston Lake Refuge and Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Many of these lakes are shallow, with an average depth of less than 7 feet, but the characteristics of each lake may vary from clear and heavily vegetated to turbid with little weed growth.
One of the most respected Nebraska ice-anglers, Don Cox, of Mullin, Neb., stresses that these fisheries are peaking right now. “We have been wet the past four years, after seven years of drought, and last winter was really good, but we expect even better things this season,” stresses Cox. Last winter, anglers found perch that pushed 14 inches, 13-inch crappie and bluegills that stretched as far as 10 inches. One of Cox’s favorite tactics for catching large panfish out of the Sand Hill Lakes is to jig a Salmo Chubby Darter with no bait. “Carp get into these lakes and really muddy up the water so visibility isn’t good and that affects weed growth, but these really big panfish are often eating minnows so that might be why the Chubby Darter works so well.” Cox reminds anglers that no live bait or minnows are allowed on the refuge lakes.
Merrit Reservoir is another great Nebraska ice-fishing destination that produces some really nice crappie each winter. Because this reservoir is drawn down each winter for irrigation, there is little weed growth in the lake. Anglers often find crappies suspending along deep structure and breaklines. Because of an abundant menu of alewives and shad, these fish grow fast and are well fed, which can frustrate the angler. Cox uses a Vexilar to both look for fish and also to find the active and aggressive fish that are often suspended over deep water. “Move around until you find fish that want to eat,” adds Cox.
Another great ice-fishing opportunity that Cox points out is the winter pike fishing on Box Butte Reservoir. Because of high water with good cover for reproduction, northern pike numbers have gone off the charts. Because of this huge pike population surge, anglers can keep ten pike per day out of this fishery. Anglers have caught pike up to 14 pounds.
Realistically, with the high water situation across the northern Great Plains, anglers are looking at what could be some of the best ice-fishing available anywhere in the country right now. Many of these regions boast extremely high year-classes of fish that have benefited from this extra water and many of these lakes are poised to peak this winter.